John Donne was a coterie poet and his work was not widely appreciated until quite recently. Perhaps the best way to approach him is via the edition of The Metaphysical Poets, (ed. Helen Gardner) where he can be read in the context of his contemporaries, such as Marvell, Vaughan and Herbert, with good footnotes, although it could be argued that there was no such group and therefore no appropriate definition of them. The selection is well chosen by a respected scholar of that period and, unless you are very determined, you will find that you do not need to start with the Complete Works containing the Anniversaries and Verse Epistles.
He is now valued for his combination of wit (meaning liveliness of mind) and emotion, uniting the two in crisp, melodic poetry, though he was previously felt to be unmusical. T.S. Eliot found in him a unified sensibilty, which did not differentiate between thought and feeling so that an intellectual activity was as much an experience to Donne as the smell of a rose. He is also known for: his conceits [extravagant analogies]; the drama in his treatment of topics; his density of thought; the immediacy, even colloquialism, of his language; the range of his references, some of them scientific; his mental capacities combined with passion; the variety of his sentence structures; the deft skill with which he changes direction in argument and his direct appeal to the reader. The voice comes to us freshly across the centuries. His contemporaries conceded that he was original and Dr. Johnson expressed a similar view: “The most heterogenous ideas … yoked by violence together”, but also felt that even if the ideas were far fetched, they were often worth the carriage.
I propose to analyse a few characteristic samples from this selection of love and religious poetry
“The Sunne Rising”
This is one of Donne’s best known poems and is, in fact, a genre piece: there were many examples, dating from Ovid, of verse apparently written by the lover disappointed that day had broken at the end of an amorous night. ‘Apparently’ here signifies that the poet has adopted the persona [mask or temporary personality] of the lover, here in bed with his wife or mistress, the falsity of which will be realised if one tries to imagine the actual situation: he scribbling his poem whilst she watches. This structure is a dramatic device in which the lover complains to both the sun and the woman.
Donne’s originality is shown in the way he addresses the sun directly in robust and colloquial terms as “Busie old foole, unruly Sunne,” personifying it and asking it why it wakes them up. The tone is of light scorn and impatience as he is aware of the outside world of school boys and others to which the lovers must soon return. He gives the sun instructions on where to go: to the court huntsmen and the farmers who need to harvest their crops, before there is a total change of mood in the final two lines of stanza one:
Love, all alike, no seasons knows nor clyme,
Nor houres, dayes, months, which are the rags of time.
In this last phrase in particular and the slow, dragged rhythm of these lines we feel a true sense of the fear of time’s power in destroying their love and youth. The reader is caught up in the situation, partly because of this and also because of the changes in the length of lines and sentence structures: questions, instructions and general observations which reflect a speaking voice.
In the second stanza Donne questions the sun (with an inversion of the sentence form in the first two lines) as to why it thinks itself so powerful: the contradiction with the first stanza is evident and typical of the poet who frequently changes tack in argument. Here we have the conceit [extreme comparison or idea] that he can perform an eclipse by shutting an eye, throwing in a quick compliment to the woman as he goes: that he would not do so because he would lose sight of her for a second, which is too long. The central conceit is that she sums up in herself all the world’s wealth (the spice and gold mines) and beauty, a Petrarchan hyperbole which expresses his passion and sense that the outside world is not lost but won in this one bed. Again there is variety in the length of lines and sentence formations and the characteristic density of thought: the reader dares not blink either. Donne is valued for his combination of intellectual activity and emotion and it can be seen at its best in this stanza: although the emotions are expressed in exaggerated language and imagery, they carry conviction because of the quality of thought processes.
Contrasting with the complexity seen here, we have the extreme simplicity of the third stanza’s: “Nothing else is,” one line standing alone which sums up the poem. Density of argument is present again in his conviction that the sun is happy to have its work lessened but only half as happy as they are, who are the model to which Princes aspire. There is a final surge of wit and a pleasure in his own ingenuity when he advises the elderly sun to save its efforts and content itself with warming just their room, which will then be the whole earth [centre] and the limit of its revolution [sphere]. His scientific knowledge and references are unusual and are combined with the erotic notion that the sun will provide the lovers with sexual energy. Although the reader admires the virtuoso element in Donne’s work, it will not have escaped attention that he has arrived at the opposite end of his thread of thought from beginning to end: first he told the sun to go away and now he invites it to stay. Yet we are less concerned with this than with the sensual and passionate intensity coupled with wit and agility of mind.
In some ways this is a companion piece to “The Sunne Rising” as the imagined situation is the same: the couple wake up after a night of love. The first stanza is dreamy yet vigorous as the writer expresses the fairly common thought that all life before this meeting was unreal, childish or a mere image of this present relationship. The time is the past but the feeling is immediate and the language colloquial: “I wonder by my troth …” We note the tiny phrase “and got” slipped in to state honestly that earlier pleasures did happen but still seem imaginary.
In stanza two the time is the present and the lovers greet, gazing at each other not out of fear but because love controls all other views of life. The sense of a sudden contraction in the famous line: “And makes one little roome, an everywhere” is followed by an equally sudden expansion as he suggests to explorers that they visit and map new worlds (Donne is partial to imagery of maps) leaving the lovers to their own. Again there are statements and instructions, complex ideas and simple language: “Let us possesse our world, each hath one and is one.” We have moved from the ancient legend of the Seven Sleepers to the latest discoveries around the globe, and yet the impression is of an immediacy and urgency of emotion.
Stanza three moves forwards from the moment now when the lovers see themselves reflected in each other’s eyes, suggesting intimacy and the fact that true hearts show in the eyes, which are hemispheres that do not decline or grow cold like the Earth’s: the argument is both sensual and geographical with a clear visual image of two heads on a pillow. Yet there is a slight anxiety in the concluding lines, a suggestion that if the loves are not equal they will die, with a pun on dye to remind the reader to stay alert. The last line slows down and the final clauses have a rhythm which lacks full confidence. By now we are looking into the future:
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none doe slacken, none can die.
The poem contains Donne’s characteristic combination of reason and emotion, hyperbole and colloquialism, movement through time to arrive at a different point and a sense of the writer spontaneously thinking aloud on to the page with asides and changes of direction. The woman remains vague in this poem as in the last one and yet she is real in the feeling he has for her. As is often the case, the poem starts with a precise occurrence and moves dramatically onwards and outwards and back again with “extraordinary thoughts in ordinary situations” (Helen Gardner) in a manner not typically romantic but nevertheless highly charged with eroticism. The reader and the woman must pay attention, however; Donne never allows anyone to doze off.
“A Valediction: forbidding mourning”
This deceptively simple poem is one of several about the parting of lovers: here, the apparently easy vocabulary and four-line stanza form conceal a density of thought and intellectual activity which merits decoding.
It starts quietly with an evocation of a domesticated death-bed scene in which the virtuous man passes away peacefully whilst his friends wait for the last breath and he whispers to his soul to leave the body at the moment of dying. The rhythm has a calm fall at the end of the lines, appropriate for the topic, and there is a strong sense of personal observation.
Then the reason for this is given in stanza two: the lovers must behave likewise and part quietly: the hyperbolic language of “teare-floods” and “sigh tempests” gently scorns other couples who may grieve too openly and who are termed “layetie” in contrast to the sacredness of Donne’s love: it would be prophanity to disclose their more spiritual relationship to such earthly people. We note the religious imagery here, used successfully to set their love on a higher plane, whereas Donne frequently uses erotic imagery in religious poems, less harmoniously. He is flattering his lady whilst projecting a sense of conviction that their love is special.
The third stanza contains scientific references, advanced knowledge at that period. Donne was up-to-date with the worlds of science, geography and astronomy and frequently uses their languages to express emotion. Earthquakes, he says, are violent and resemble ordinary love but theirs is more like “trepidation of the spheares” (explained in Helen Gardner’s footnote. It was a theory invented to account for the precession of the equinoxes, actually caused by slight wobble of the Earth on its axis), harmless and not portentous. The point of the analogy is to urge calm and avoid violent reactions.
Stanza four is notable for its assonance, (repetition of vowels): “Dull sublunary lovers love” giving a lulling, musical quality to the argument that these pettier folk, whose passion is merely sensual, cannot accept absences because parting removes the body which is the main reason for their love. They therefore bewail and cause disturbances similar to earthquakes. We notice the combination of intense feeling and argument, so characteristic of Donne.
The love between Donne and his mistress or wife is refined (finer, more abstract) so much so that they cannot define it or locate it in a particular part of the body: they therefore care less (note the pun) when they cannot see or feel each other’s eyes, lips and hands. Yet we feel that the slow rhythm here does express a certain hidden longing and that his words lack conviction. Sometimes the sounds contradict the sense.
Now at stanza six he introduces an analogy by which their love can withstand distance because it is as precious as gold and can be extended into an “ayery thinnesse” as it is of a spiritual nature, like air. But he slips in a little intellectual proviso: their souls are two and one at the same time because of their unity and he also reminds her of the necessity of his departure. This monosyllabic clause; “Though I must goe” alerts us to her presence: she is there listening and, possibly, doubtful.
The final three stanzas are based on an analogy with a pair of compasses and it is worth trying it out with your own pair, or at least with two pencils held together at the top, to see how the comparison functions. Back he goes to accept that they may have two separate souls but only in the way that compasses (an emblem of constancy) are dual: she represents the fixed foot of the firm compasses, whilst he moves. She will not bend unless he does. She will stay at the centre and metaphorically lean towards him as he roves, growing erect (an erotic pun) as he returns. So here he has moved away and then come back and they are now both upright together at the middle. But in the final stanza he is moving in a circle whilst her constancy ensures that his circle is perfect (the circle being also an emblem of constancy).
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end, where I begunne.
The feeling here is that they are together in bliss but it is not so. If he ends where he began his perfect circle, he is apart from her. On the horizontal plane they are separate, though still joined at the top. This is a prime example of emotion taking over from reason: the tone, rhymes and rhythms carry the reader along so that the discrepancy can pass unnoticed. The conceit is neat but inaccurate. At this point we may remember the first stanza and its concern with death and the soul: voyages were dangerous and earthquakes have been mentioned. There is an undermining of the mood of triumphal return.